Covent Garden, the Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945-2000

Overview

From 1732 until World War II, London's privately owned and operated Royal Opera House (ROH) at Covent Garden was reflective of the country it served — the rich and noble enjoyed performances in the luxury of the theater and concert hall while the rest of the classes viewed the shows from the dimly-lit top gallery. In 1945, with Britain in financial crisis, its cities in ruins, and its citizens living on strict food and fuel rations, Covent Garden was reborn as a public company after economist Maynard Keynes ...

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Overview

From 1732 until World War II, London's privately owned and operated Royal Opera House (ROH) at Covent Garden was reflective of the country it served — the rich and noble enjoyed performances in the luxury of the theater and concert hall while the rest of the classes viewed the shows from the dimly-lit top gallery. In 1945, with Britain in financial crisis, its cities in ruins, and its citizens living on strict food and fuel rations, Covent Garden was reborn as a public company after economist Maynard Keynes called for state money to support an Arts Council and Royal Opera House, under his own chairmanship, that would resurrect the nation's fortunes and spirit through the preservation of English culture and performing arts. From that point on, says Norman Lebrecht, ROH, with its Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies, purported to conduct this postwar national mission while attaching itself to the social elite, creating a recipe for disaster that finally exploded half a century later when the world-class Covent Garden was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.

In this comprehensive and unvarnished history, Lebrecht explains the astonishing failure of an institution that was designed to define a nation. Four chief executives came and went in eighteen months, and the off-stage dramas, catastrophes, misadventures, and infighting became comic fodder for the press and Parliament. Lebrecht's illuminating account of the rise, decline, and fall of the ROH during the second half of the twentieth century is situated within the broader context of upheavals and changes in English cultural life that have eroded the very notion of "Englishness" and transformed the country from heroic poverty to heartless wealth.

With unprecedented access to private archives and key players, Lebrecht recounts an intriguing tale of special relationships between internal management and successive governments and arts councils, hidden public cash, corruption, anti-semitism, and campaigns against homosexuals. He also provides colorful details about the many celebrated performers and personalities, including Maria Callas, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Georg Solti, and Kiri te Kanawa, who helped shape Covent Garden's storied traditions.

Lebrecht concludes by offering thoughts on what the future holds for this notable institution, arguing that Covent Garden should be privatized along the same lines as the Metropolitan Opera.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lebrecht (The Maestro Myth and Who Killed Classical Music?), music critic for the Daily Telegraph in London, is one of the liveliest writers on music today, although occasionally he seems to enjoy whipping up a controversy or a scandal for its own sake, and cannot resist a wittily salacious line (a male ballet dancer is said to have "his privates on parade"). What he has accomplished in this account of the past 50-odd years in the life of the Royal Opera House (and its companion the Royal Ballet) is extraordinarily valuable. It is no less than a detailed scrutiny of the relationship between politics and the arts, between private patronage and state support, and of the drastically altered notions of class and taste created by a developing British social landscape. Lebrecht has been admirably thorough in digging up obscure documents, interviewing survivors from the ROH's early postwar years, and accomplishing a fly-on-the-wall act at dozens of key meetings that embroiled the successive embattled directors of the establishment (four in the past couple of years alone). The modern ROH was essentially the creation of the late George Maynard Keynes, who supported its ballet branch for the sake of his dancer wife, and who set in motion the remarkable tightrope walk between state funding and commercial enterprise on which it has teetered ever since. Lebrecht has applied a similar scrutiny to the entire postwar era and not neglected to add plenty of spicy detail about conductors, composers and divas ranging from Callas to Solti to Sutherland, from Fonteyn to Ashton, Britten to Tippet. This is a triumph of social and musical history. Pictures not seen by PW. (Oct. 26). Copyright 2001 CahnersBusiness Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A longish, sometimes ill-tempered history of London's Royal Opera House in the tumultuous, belt-tightening postwar era. When he was a young man, English music journalist and BBC radio commentator Lebrecht (The Maestro Myth, 1992, etc.) says, his older sister took in productions of the Royal Opera two or three times a month at a cost of two-and-sixpence, or about two pounds today. Those democratic days, when, thanks to the efforts of ROH chairman and famed economist John Maynard Keynes, access to the arts was taken to be something of a civil right and a governmental duty, are long gone; ticket prices today are astronomical, thanks to extravagant productions and, more, the bloated salaries of operatic stars such as Luciano Pavarotti (who, Lebrecht writes, really got his start at the ROH, and who comes in for quite a shellacking in these pages). In a narrative populated by the likes of Rudolf Nureyev, Joan Sutherland, Margot Fonteyn, Maria Callas, and Placido Domingo (who earns high praise for his courtliness and commitment, like Keynes, to bring art to the people), Lebrecht explores how the once-mighty Royal Opera and its sister Royal Ballet were brought to their knees by a cabal of Tory privatizers, self-serving chairmen, and arts bureaucrats-as well as by changing popular tastes-transformed from purveyors of life-enriching experiences to good-life accoutrements of mobile phone-toting yuppies who made the ROH "nouveau chic" in the darkest days of Thatcherism. In later years, the ROH garnered ticket sales through the unwilling patronage of Princess Diana, who, post-Charles, attended dance performances but not operas; ticket sales fell at roughly the same time that stars began to demandbigger and bigger salaries and incidentals, casting the ROH into a fiscal crisis. Lately, it's been recovering thanks to aggressive direction by American entrepreneur Michael Kaiser, who, in the spirit of the early directors, believes "passionately in taking the arts to the widest possible public-not as a public right, but as a public responsibility." Too long by half and overdetailed, but nonetheless of much interest. Especially useful reading for arts administrators and fundraisers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555534882
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press
  • Publication date: 9/21/2001
  • Pages: 580
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Norman Lebrecht is a weekly music columnist for the Daily Telegraph and the author of The Maestro Myth and When the Music Stops, as well as critical studies on Gustav Mahler and twentieth-century music. He is the host of "Lebrecht Live," a talk show on BBC Radio 3. He lives in London.

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